Why Hamas is gaining in Palestinian polls

The militant party is in a close race in Wednesday's parliamentary vote.

Speaking easy English and shaking the hand of male and female visitors alike, Adli Yaish is hardly the typical face of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Rather, the new mayor of Nablus embodies a cadre of Hamas "spinoffs." Gone are the full beards and fiery religious rhetoric. Absent are assertions that all Israel is a "Zionist entity" that Muslims must destroy.

Saying they are inspired by - though not in lock step with - Hamas's militant core, politicians like Mr. Yaish have come to the fore in the group's first campaign for national representation. And when Palestinians vote in Wednesday's legislative elections, analysts say, it's Hamas's more moderate tone, as well as disillusionment with the ruling Fatah Party, that will yield the group significant gains.

At the same time, its mix of moderate and hard-line messages may complicate Israeli and US stands against dealing with Hamas, which both countries consider a terrorist organization.

Campaigning was barred Tuesday, while thousands of Palestinian security officers took up positions in the West Bank and Gaza to protect polling stations. Armed groups pledged to maintain calm during the election, but gunmen linked to Fatah killed a party leader, spurring about 1,000 supporters and activists to march in Nablus in protest of the lawlessness.

According to the latest figures from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, based in Ramallah, 42 percent of Palestinians will vote for Fatah, while 35 percent will vote for the Hamas-backed Change and Reform Party.

But it is unclear how Hamas's popularity will translate into policy. The group, which is responsible for the greatest number of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians, only recently became involved in municipal, let alone national, governance.

Some Palestinians say that Hamas is hoping it doesn't get a majority, preparing instead to be an opposition or second-largest power. In recent interviews, leaders have said that they will not change their charter calling for Israel's destruction. But Tuesday, Hamas leader and candidate Mahmoud Zahar said in Gaza that "negotiation is not a taboo," adding at the same time that "we do not consider the Israeli enemy as a partner or a neighbor."

Hamas takes a pragmatic turn

To some observers, appearance of figures like Yaish suggest that Hamas may be placing itself in a more pragmatic spot on the Palestinian spectrum. Others say that Hamas has widened its umbrella by appealing to people who abide by Muslim values but are not extreme. And amid disarray within the Palestinian Authority (PA), run since 1994 by the secular Fatah faction, Hamas is gleaning much of what might be called a protest vote.

At the Arafat Sweets Shop - no relation to the late Palestinian leader - there is a popular sentiment: Throw the Bums Out, Middle Eastern-style.

"We want change. We want our leaders to be people who fear God," says Abdullah Kassem. "We were Fatah supporters," he says of his friends, "but we are demanding new faces. The PA is full of criminals and there is unbelievable lawlessness."

As the men chat, Amal Khreishe, a candidate for one of the most liberal of the 11 lists running for office, approaches to ask for support.

"If we only have Fatah and Hamas, and if there is conflict because of that, the people will pay the price," she says. She is a member of the list headed by Mustafa Barghouti, a physician with a small following among academics and moderates.

The men are friendly but appear unswayed in their intent to vote for Hamas. A nearby wall is carpeted with posters, almost all of them for Hamas. On the street, there is malaise and a desire for quick solutions. Anger at Israel mixes with feelings that the Palestinian leadership is corrupt and weak. Violence within Fatah, particularly in Gaza, seems to bolster the image of a Hamas that is tightly run.

"Fatah has had 10 years to negotiate, and just look at this," says Suleiman Kawarik, a driver, as he points to long lines at the checkpoint south of the city. "It's like trying to leave the country, just trying to leave your city. The PA can't help anybody - they just give out small services...."

Hamas provides social services

Hamas was founded in the Gaza Strip in late 1987, at the start of the first intifada, as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its secretive military wing, as Hamas describes it, carried out attacks on Israelis. But while its political wing rejected the Oslo Accords, it opened a dialogue with the Palestinian authors of the peace process in Fatah.

Meanwhile, Hamas runs preschools, youth clubs, and health clinics. It provides needy people with assistance, and even holds free weddings. It is that face of Hamas that many Palestinians see first.

"People think of Hamas as only killing people, but no, this is only one side of the picture. We are also doing a lot of social work," says Yaish, who studied at Liverpool University in England and is a father of six. He believes that Hamas will come to be accepted internationally as an interlocutor. "I think the Americans and the Israelis have to deal with anyone the people choose," he says.

The city's deputy mayor, also from the Reform and Change Party, says the world should see their party as one might view Christian Democrats in Europe.

"Religious people here are the elite," says Nihad Masri, an obstetrician. "You can't find an unemployed man among us. I condemn suicide bombings, but are they justified or not? We don't have anything else to defend ourselves with," he says, pointing to Israel's controversial barrier and military incursions.

But some Palestinians say the only way out of conflict is to return to talks with Israel, and support Fatah as the best route. "[O]nly Fatah can negotiate with Israel," says Hussam Bakeer, who runs an appliance store here. "Fatah is internationally accepted at the negotiating table."

Indeed, while Hamas says a temporary truce - even a long-term one - could be on the table, it continues to strike a combative tone. In one campaign ad, rebroadcast by CNN, the group shows footage of militants as it states: "We will not rest as long as one inch of our holy land is in the hands of the Jews. Our flags will fly over the minarets of Jerusalem."

Wire material was used in this report.

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